Before 1948, African-American musicians were, by and large, precluded from playing in or performing with American orchestras. Although William Grant Still actually conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1936 (making him the first African-American to conduct a major American orchestra, and perhaps the first African-American to conduct a major orchestra anywhere in the world), his appearance with the orchestra was a rare occurrence. History does not record any African-American being hired by any American orchestra prior to 1948.
Just as Black Americans had sought admission into mainstream American institutions before 1948, Black musicians sought entry into the ranks of American orchestras prior to 1948 as well. But the doors to those American institutions were firmly shut and locked.
So, just as Blacks developed many institutions of their own as places for African- American expression - like Black-owned banks, Negro Newspapers and the Negro Baseball Leagues, African-Americans around the country created orchestras to give Blacks an opportunity to learn, play and enjoy orchestral music. As a practical matter, these fledgling orchestras were the only place where African-Americans musicians could participate in orchestral music, and where Black audiences could enjoy symphonic concerts. The concert halls were open for Black audiences to
attend concerts. But Blacks were, generally, made to feel very uncomfortable in these settings. In Southern venues, Blacks could only sit in the back of the auditorium or in the balcony. And except for The Huntington Park Symphony in the Los Angeles area, there was no orchestra in America in which Blacks could play.
The Huntington Park Symphony was the one known mainstream orchestra that opened its doors to Blacks, and some African-American instrumentalists in the Los Angeles area joined this orchestra. But the orchestra paid the price, for inasmuch as the Symphony made room for Blacks, many venues closed their doors to the orchestra solely because of this, and consequently, this orchestra was forced to play many of its concerts in city parks. Aside from The Huntington Park Symphony, however, there were no orchestras - either in Southern California or anywhere else in the country - that were open to Blacks.
Around 1948, America was beginning to change, and the doors of opportunity were starting to open for African-Americans in many areas of American life. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in professional sports. In 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the end of official segregation in the armed forces. In 1954, the United States Supreme Courtissued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawing the practice known as "separate but equal". And in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, an act that ultimately lead to the elimination of "white only" facilities, and the opening of seats at lunch counters and job opportunities to all.
African-American musicians caught this wave and again knocked on the doors of America's orchestras for admission. But inasmuch as African-American musicians were, understandably, not proficient in the art of orchestral performance as this new day dawned on America, the stated reason for denying Blacks admission into America's orchestras now changed. It was no longer in vogue to keep Blacks out of orchestras simply because of race. But now, Blacks were excluded because of lack of knowledge of the repertoire and experience in ensemble performance.
African-American music teachers were committed that this excuse could not be used to keep the next generation of musicians out of American orchestras. So they determined to create an orchestra where African-American musicians - most notably, their students - could learn orchestral repertoire and ensemble performance, a place where Blacks could prepare for careers in the great orchestras of the world and the music pits of Broadway and the opera world; a place where African-American musicians could prepare for the challenges of the recording studios of Los Angeles, and the movie studios of Hollywood; and even a place where African-American concert-goers could go to enjoy the music of the great masters in comfort. It was in this context that one of those music teachers, Mabel Massengill Gunn, gathered her colleagues, most who lived in an area of Los Angeles that is southeast of the city's downtown sector, and formed The Southeast Symphony. And with this act and in this setting, our orchestra was born.
The Symphony performed a season of four concerts in that first year of its existence, all of which were held in large churches of the African-American community. And the Orchestra has thrived ever since. The Southeast Symphony is now the longest continuously performing primarily African-American orchestra in the world, performing a concert season each year since that initial season of 1948. Over the course of its history, the orchestra has performed hundreds of concerts which have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of patrons, for a diverse cross section of Los Angeles' diverse communities..
In addition to playing concerts for the community that it serves, the orchestra has been a vital training ground for many African-American musicians who have aspired to perform orchestral music. We continue to perform concerts in areas of our city where live orchestral music is not readily accessible.